News & Events

Alpha House Partnership: Calgary Police Services

Shaundra Bruvall | September 10, 2020

If I was to offer an introduction of the 40 year history of Alpha House two important groups would stand out…the now decommissioned Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission and Calgary Police Services.

A little back ground:

On April 15, 1970, the government of Alberta approved the Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Act, which created the Alberta Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Commission. With this Act came the clear delineation of drug abuse prevention as part of AADAC’s responsibility along with the continuation of alcohol abuse prevention (“Alcoholism” was shortened to “Alcohol” in 1985.)

In April 2009 AADAC (Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission) was decommissioned after 25 years as part of the amalgamation of the previous 9 health regions, Alberta cancer board, and Alberta mental health board. The amalgamation is now complete and all of the old AADAC’s services are now part of the newly named Addiction and Mental Health services of the Alberta Health Services. The combination of addiction and mental health services is in keeping with the trend of recognizing the importance of concurrent disorders. Addiction and mental health services will now focus on 3 streams which includes addiction primarily, mental health primarily and concurrent disorders. – Canadian Society of Addiction Medicine August 2009 Vol 13 Number 2

I’m not an expert on the history of Calgary Police Services (CPS) so please excuse me as I move forward. What I do understand from oral accounts is that Alpha House from its conception drew from AADAC, the Solicitor General’s office, and Calgary policing.

“Early Alpha House members came from ADDAC or had a history of working in addictions, some also came from CPS and this included some with dual associations in self-help step programs. This group of individuals with the backing of the Solicitor General through sheer determination helped to make Alpha House a reality.”

Stuart Hutton
CPS DOAP Recognition Award Plaque 2011

Calgary Alpha House Society was incorporated in fall of 1981 and opened its door in January of 1982. Its mission was to provide a safe and caring environment for men and women with alcohol and other addictions. Its innovation was a shelter tied to a detox centre in one location complimenting the efforts of an AADAC run medical detox with a non-profit social model of shelter and detox.

In recognition, Alpha House 10 years of service with AADAC

Alpha House began at a time when Calgary Police Services were hoping to divert people from their city cell system, which often included ticketing those least able to pay and ended with many being incarcerated for minor public intoxication infractions. Alpha House quickly became an alternate to city cells across all city police districts. Innovations with the non-profit sector eventually included CPS liaison officers who could respond to those with alcohol and other drug dependencies and now includes directorship on the Alpha House society board. Something mutually healthy evolved. Not perfect but progressive. (Remember that this period included a war on drugs mentality that to this day impacts and hampers public discourse and policy.)

By the early 1980’s non- profits like Alpha House became funded agencies under AADAC (and eventually under Addiction and Mental Health). AADAC and its lens towards prevention impacted not only the addiction change models that Alpha House would work from but also the justice and policing models that would emerge around addiction and mental health and under provincial diversion programs which would follow. CPS were hoping to pull away from the ‘drunk tank’ approach towards public intoxication and Alpha House was mandated to bring withdrawal stabilization and  recovery planning to those caught in the cycle of addiction. Government policy changes helped these approaches at Alpha House and CPS to mature. Our mandate to provide safe and caring places for people with alcohol and other drug dependencies gave us the adaptability to respond to the changing nature of recovery and the health based issues related to addiction and mental health. CPS and its core values Respect, Honesty, Compassion, Courage, Fairness, Accountability and Integrity are values Alpha House supports.

The day to day experience for Alpha House and CPS has continued to involve over the years. I can recall the involvement of beat officers (later Community Peace Officers). Seasoned officers often made it a point to introduce new recruits and rookie officers to Alpha House. Alpha House maintained a high degree of confidentiality from its earliest days and Calgary Police Services recognized that our focus was different from policing. Our focus was about building relationships so as to encourage recovery and trust was what made that happen. CPS respected this and we also worked to not break trust with them.

Officers who dropped off intoxicated clients learned quickly that we were ready to respond and through our respect for the client we conveyed respect to the role as police officers. The ensuing decades for Alpha House and CPS was a progressive time as both addressed the impact of migration, immigration and reparation in an ever changing city with a growing, diverse population. Through oil and gas booms and busts the city grew quickly and agencies like Alpha House and services like CPS responded. CPS saw that building strong relationships with communities was a way to prevent crime. By the time Alpha House was ready to expand its shelter and detox models and to start the operation of its Outreach (DOAP) team and its focused housing programs, CPS was also ready to embrace these diversion programs that we were offering. Throughout they have remained an ally in the work we do.

Perhaps one of my happiest moments along with others here at Alpha House was when the Calgary Police Service Strategic Indigenous Road Map was introduced. It mirrors our own intentions to support the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The work of the Aboriginal Liaison Officer is important to us and we hope that every district will have one on staff soon. Likewise we appreciate the efforts of the Calgary Police Services Diversity Resource Team and its role in the LBGTQ community who we also serve.

Policing, I believe as it is for those of us working in addictions, isn’t an easy gig. We have been able to learn from each other and are painfully aware of gaps. I have seen individuals in both fields struggle in ways that they probably looking back would now regret. There are also things to unlearn to make way for new innovations. What changes groups in the end seems to be not so much individual behavior but policy measures. What Alpha House got right was there from its inception, build relationships based on care and safety. It is hoped our partnership with CPS continues to grow and evolve given that shared mandate.

David is marking his 25th year of service at Alpha House with a series of blogs. David is humbled to be allowed to express his views in recognition that he does not speak for the agency as a whole.


Grief and Loss at Alpha House: A Personal Reflection*

Shaundra Bruvall | June 30, 2020

(* As a personal reflection I am recalling my own experience of what for most is a very personal experience and in no way am speaking for someone else’s experience.. Also this is not a speculation on causes of death which is probably at the expected rate for the size of the population of the city of Calgary) 

And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.

Rainer Maria Rilke

The above picture and poem are part of the pop-up memorial for clients that have died and are remembered by staff and other clients at Alpha House. At least twice yearly we commemorate the passing of clients with boards like the one above filled with coloured butterflies bearing the names of those who have recently passed away. The display is set up for a month and then we offer a memorial service for all wanting to attend. At the memorial service we drum and sing, offer smudge, lite candles, and speak prayers for a safe crossing as the names are read. We close with a favorite song, or with antidotes and stories of those who have passed. At the end refreshments often along with a meal is served, reminding  us all that we need to care for ourselves as we grieve and move on with our lives.

Talking with staff and clients about grief and loss I have been told of some of the specific ways that people mark the death of someone they knew, worked with closely or carry in some way as a loss. Several take flowers they find growing wild or rocks that attract their eye and drop them into the Elbow River or Bow River from a bridge or shoreline, adding a prayer as they symbolically let the deceased person go. Some set adrift ordinary brown bags with a lighted tea candle inside and set them on the river just before dawn or later after sunset with a similar prayer of letting go. At one ceremony for a deceased staff member we set fifty or so helium filled balloons to the afternoon sky as a way of saying safe journey. Before COVID19 it is not unusual for staff and clients to join with family members and there memorial services for a love one. At times we have accommodated a family or group of friends to use our space at Alpha House for that purpose. Some client’s display their grief verbally with tearful out breaks and even what can seem like anger; some with the funny and the dear stories they remember. Staff debrief and talk things out with trusted colleagues and supports. Formally and informally those that survive find their ways to grieve and move forward from loss. As humans we need to express our grief and loss often collectively and always personally. Tears are shed and rituals are given meaning as we mark the dignity of life and of dying of those whose lives have touched our own.

 My personal experience with death and dying spans my career as a social worker. My first job as a caseworker with the then known AIDS Calgary taught me a few things about grieving and its importance. My work at Alpha House has continued to be a teacher in this regard. Many of our people have died without family near and as staff we were in that fortunate place to bear witness to their life, truly an honour. In these days of COVID19 as it once was during the AIDS epidemic it seems like grief and loss is everywhere. All the more reason to rely on rituals especially those specific to ourselves to acknowledge the impact of loss in our collective and personal lives. Under COVID19 restrictions our group memorial will have to wait as we remain attuned to the expression of grief.

 To bear witness at the passing of a client I have known is to not give in to the adage that ‘the person now is in a better place’. It may be true they are, but I have learned that people can be the most alive in their dying. I often use phrases like ‘they are in a better place ‘or  ‘at least they are no longer suffering’ to give reason to the experience that even when someone’s dying  is expected it can often feel sudden and too soon. By not using these phrases or getting beyond them I am better able to speak to their lived lives; the great desire people have to keep living through the difficult challenges of addiction and mental health. Death came as clients were busy living, loving and caring in the best ways they knew.

 This doesn’t mean we forget what can improve people’s lives and the challenges they face. Each passing reminds us to keep to the task at hand of improving the lives that we touch and touch us.  Issues from poverty to homelessness, racism and colonialism and the failed war on drugs are part of this ongoing work. The lives of those who have died help us to remember the ongoing work as a society we need to do.

 Alpha House takes people where they are at and our challenge is to advocate for change in our non-judgmental capacity. It is helpful to recall the community the client lived in and drew support from and not just their history of trauma and missteps they may have taken. That is why when family and friends come to a service we are hosting or when we can attend one of theirs what makes us equals shine through. When clients who knew the deceased gather outside for an impromptu remembrance these can be so meaningful. When staff and clients can share smudge (outside in small gathering these days) closure is made possible.

For the clients who have died I remember them as people who lived resourcefully, with humor, resilience, eccentricity, and with love and caring for others in all ways that humans express their humanity to each other. Addiction and mental health in the end didn’t defeat them, just as addiction and mental health aren’t the conclave of the marginalized, homeless and impoverished as it crosses all social and economic status. I choose to recall the aliveness, joy, love and cultural expression of those who have gone before.

David is marking his 25th year of service at Alpha House with a series of blogs.


Wellbriety at Alpha House

Shaundra Bruvall | June 10, 2020

On Tuesdays and Thursdays for over 2 years, Alpha House has hosted Wellbriety sessions for clients who are completing or have already completed our Detox Program. Clients return each week to keep a connection to this Indigenous program offering. (During Covid-19, we have limited numbers and incorporated social distancing and other health requirements).

Facilitated by our Cultural Reconnection Peer Support Worker, Michael Firingstoney, and co-founded with Wade Maude, our Indigenous Coordinator, this co-ed recovery program has become a mainstay for Detox and returning participants alike.

The Wellbriety Movement (also called the Wellbriety Path) uses culture to help individuals to heal from drug and alcohol use, as well as to heal from the systemic, inter-generational and historical trauma that is often related to substance addictions for Indigenous people. The program is robust and adaptable and it enriches the recovery path of all individuals who decide to participate. At its heart, it sees Indigenous culture as preventative and restorative.

 “The Wellbriety Movement was born in the early to mid-1990s and merged 12 Step AA/NA with the teachings of the Medicine Wheel. This approach uses any or all the various local tribal traditions in meetings and talking circles. The Wellbriety Movement also highlighted the need to go beyond sobriety to heal the wounds of inter-generational trauma carried by almost all Native Americans people (Coyhis, 2006). Native Americans people now understand that alcoholism is a symptom of more deeply embedded wounds. The most prevalent wound is the trauma of oppressive genocidal behaviors and policies arising from the dominant Euro-American society and passed down unabated from generation to generation. The most obvious outward causes of inter-generational trauma.”

Linda Anderson: The WellBriety Path to Treating Co-Occurring Disorders in Native Americans: An Adlerian Perspective An Experiential Project 2017

Alpha House employs over 300 people with diverse cultural backgrounds. Each year the Detox program alone welcomes nearly two thousand clients of diverse ethical and religious backgrounds. As Alpha House seeks to provide safe and caring environments for men and women with alcohol and substance use addictions, Wellbriety has become an inclusive environment for all.

Between 50 – 60% of Alpha House clients are Indigenous or of Metis descent.  The Indigenous program through Wellbriety connects participants to agency sponsored Sweat Lodge Ceremony, Drumming Circles, Sharing Circles, and access to Elders. All clients are offered these services as part of Alpha House’s continuum of care. Alpha House recognizes that trauma informed care for all helps to heal the wounds of addiction and of historical and ongoing systemic discrimination.

How does it work?

Every Wellbriety session at Alpha House attracts 8-10 people per session (3-4 during Covid-19) and each group of sessions is offered over a three month period. Given the nature of Detox, not everyone will complete the full set of modules offered in one go. However the door is open for those wanting to maintain their recovery by completing the Wellbriety steps. Each cycle is marked initially by welcoming returning clients and at the ending of the cycle by recognizing participants who have completed the Wellbriety program. The Wellbriety Path in this way welcomes continuous engagement. 

Comments from WellBriety participants at Alpha House:

A Wellbriety graduation in March 2020

“Wellbriety has helped inspire me to stay sober through connecting my sobriety through traditional teachings. Within the holistic framework Wellbriety uses I find myself more inclined to share about the suffering that goes along with addiction.” Matt

“It has given me a better outlook and a different approach to sobriety.” Alex

“Myself, I’ve been to numerous treatment centers and have found in Wellbriety the awareness surrounding oppression and spirituality as internal was beneficial. “ Jared

  Delaware Indians, Anxiety And Anger, Native American Beading, Thing 1 Thing 2, Recovery, The Creator, Finding Yourself, Healing, Positivity

There is a solution for us as Native people, and for some of us it is a return to the traditional ceremonies of our Nations. For some of us, it is to seek out an Elder and have him or her help us find the path to the Good Road or to the Red Road as we call it.

The Red Road to Wellbriety Study Guide page 19

Looking Forward

Over time we hope that as alumni mature and grow they will also become instrumental in supporting the Wellbriety program. We aren’t there yet but it looks promising. One alumni beginning has been the Sober Clan, as an offshoot of the Alpha House Wellbriety sessions this group of alumni now help with running of the meetings and assisting the facilitator and new group members with their stories of recovery. Several of the Sober Clan have reached their one year of recovery thanks to Wellbriety.

Text Box: Great Spirit
Whose voice I hear
In the wind
Whose breath gives life
To the world
Hear me 
I come to you
As one of your many children 
I am small and weak
I need your strength
And wisdom
May I walk
In beauty
The Wellbriety 30 day recovery medallion is engraved with these words that continue to inspire us to support this meaningful and healing program…
 
Great Spirit
Whose voice I hear
In the wind
Whose breath gives life
To the world
Hear me
I come to you
As one of your many children
I am small and weak
I need your strength
And wisdom
May I walk
In beauty

To date we have given out 50, 30-day medallions; for some, marking their longest period of sobriety. We are proud for all who have participated and all who have shown their best in this Alpha House Indigenous program offering.

Please note that Indigenous Programming at Alpha House is dependent on individual and community donations from people like you .

David is marking his 25th year of service at Alpha House with a series of blogs.


Recovery at Alpha House During COVID-19

Shaundra Bruvall | May 21, 2020

For many of those who know Alpha House, you know that recovery and harm reduction principles and practices are part of our work culture and go hand-in-hand…two sides of the same coin.

The shared principles that bridge the dichotomy between harm reduction and recovery include:

  • Respect
  • Dignity
  • Compassion
  • Building trust and relationship
  • Being non judgemental
  • Increasing our quality of response

Alpha House has developed wise practices that work for people and their willingness for change. From our understanding change is incremental and begins with small steps. As someone recently coined it …practicing harm recovery.

“It may be that traditional <office-based> substance abuse programs continue to operate according to the philosophy that people with addiction disorders need to ‘‘hit bottom’’ and seek help for treatment to be successful. There has been a challenge to this paradigm in the trans-theoretical model proposed by Prochaska and DiClemente which posits that behavior change involves a process that occurs in increments. Change is viewed as a progression from a pre-contemplation stage—where the person is not considering a change; to contemplation—where the person is carefully weighing the pros and cons of changing; to preparation—where planning and commitments for change efforts are secured; to action—to make the particular change; to maintenance—in which the person works to sustain long-term changes. Also, Motivational Enhancement Therapy is an evidence-based practice in addictions treatment that views ambivalence as a part of the recovery process, and employs strategies to reduce ambivalence by building motivation.” [1]

Alpha House staff are keen observers of the stage of change model and motivational interviewing and use these tools to support the recovery of the men and women they serve. Along with our understanding  of crisis management, trauma informed care, brain science, the complexity of alcohol and drug use, and the importance of fellowship and mentoring, Alpha House has created an extensive tool kit that help staff to build motivation with and for its clients. Alpha House’s commitment to those with alcoholic and substance abuse issues, often marginalized, homeless, and street engaged is to bring empowerment and inclusion while meeting them where they are at. In doing so, Alpha House responds daily to the chronic nature of addiction not just to its acute manifestations.          

“You don’t get over an addiction by stopping using. You recover by creating a new life where it’s easier to not use. If you don’t create a new life, then all the factors that brought you to your addiction will catch up with you again.”

– Unknown

Alpha House, its staff and its clients are on the front line of COVID-19 and recovery. By building relationships, we are helping people to create new lives no matter what challenges precipitate. Many years ago in my first year at Alpha House a value statement emerged from the staff …simply put it stated that people we worked with were more than their addiction. How great is that…at the time 24 staff worked together to foster that value statement as part of its strategic plan for the agency. Now we have over 300 staff and that value statement still stands as we move forward with our clients every day. COVID-19 doesn’t preclude recovery…it provides an opportunity to re-frame a person’s belief that recovery isn’t possible. There is no good time for recovery except for the willingness to begin…one small step at a time.

The process begins anew every day. Stabilization and care are key as clients move through our programs of outreach, shelter, detox, and housing. Keeping people safe during COVID-19 is not different from reducing harm from their addiction and making space in people’s lives for recovery.

Given that clients don’t have access to treatment centres or to peer support step programs these days due COVID-19 it would seem that recovery has been pushed out of the picture. Crisis management however tells us otherwise…dialogue, active listening, and reframing as well as providing a safe and caring environment does foster change and can influence positive outcomes. Our work is more than planting seeds for change, it is observing and responding to what is already growing within each client. As we face this pandemic we do so together and we see clients as more than their addiction. We have been able to maintain detox scenarios throughout our pandemic response, though sometimes with reduced capacity. We have been able to encourage abstinence for those that want it by providing supportive touch and verbal and nonverbal communication as we move them from outreach, shelter to transitional beds and housing.

In our shelters in Calgary and Lethbridge, we educate and model for clients the importance of social distancing, hand washing, and continuous masking and we have increased access to nursing care including symptomatic and asymptomatic COVID-19 testing. The variables fluctuate but the path doesn’t, we don’t compromise on recovery because of COVID-19.

“The waveform that overwhelms a maturing human being from the inside is the inescapable nature of their own flaws and weaknesses, their self-deceptions and their attempts to create false names and stories to place themselves in the world; the felt need to control the narrative of the story around them with no regard to outside revelation. The immense wave on the outside is the invitation to give that self-up, to be borne off by the wave and renamed, revealed and re-ordered by the powerful flow. “ [2]

In our shelter and detox, stabilization and recovery includes offering things that make a difference:

  • Increase phone access for clients so as to contact those they are worried about and encouraging them to reach out to those who may be worried about them due to COVID-19.
  • Although in house services have been impacted that has meant an increase in staff time for each person with staff able to engage clients more deeply and frequently.
  • Recovery includes providing respite and nourishment when other sources have closed or limited access.
  • It also means making sure people have access to their medication and being able to address medical and mental health needs.
  • Encouraging clients to develop routines and check-ins with staff

The people we work with have given us many anecdotal statements over the years. Their voices continue today to counter the judgements of those that don’t often value or know the nature of our work…but even more their voices counter the narratives that have constrained them in the past… they deserve to have the last comments of this post…

This was a life lesson for me, thank you for the opportunity and hospitality

Alpha House acknowledges the potential anybody has and is willing to help. I think that is magical

Everyone who helped me are angels! Thank you for giving me the first step towards taking my life back.

Thank you everyone for all the tools to set me sober, I fell as if this is a huge step forward in the right direction for me and my family, thanks.

The staff have been extremely helpful, especially with helping to get me through my low moments and to help me stay focused on what I have accomplished and steps I’m taking.

From dry out to sober living, Alpha House has been instrumental in my recovery

COVID-19 has impacted and limited activities [in Detox] but  the positive influence of staff have helped me to stay sober.

David is marking his 25th year of service at Alpha House with a series of blogs. If you would like to share your story or comments with him you can reach him at david@alphahousecalgary.com


[1] Assertive Outreach: An Effective Strategy for Engaging Homeless Persons with Substance Use Disorders into Treatment Deborah Fisk, L.C.S.W.,1Jaak Rakfeldt, Ph.D.,2andErin McCormack, M.S.W.

[2] CONSOLATIONS: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words. 2014. David Whyte and Many Rivers Press